In the Middle, Literally
As explained in this digital U.S. history textbook, Pennsylvania was one of the “Middle Colonies.” When the English began colonizing North America, there were three regions that they colonized: New England, in the northern part of the eastern seaboard, the Southern colonies, and the so-called “Middle Colonies,” which literally were in between New England in the Southern colonies.
This is why, occasionally, Pennsylvania is still referred to as a “middle state.” For example, the body that accredits Saint Francis University and other institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, is called the “Middle States Commission on Higher Education.”
“The Middle Ground”
In 1991, historian Richard White published an important book which changed how historians thought about the history of colonial North America. The title of the book was The Middle Ground and, while the book was specifically about (as the subtitle indicates) “Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815,” White’s argument can be applied to much of North American history. He argued that interactions between Native Americans and Europeans were often shaped by “a process of mutual and creative misunderstanding.” In other words, Native peoples and Europeans, coming from very different cultures, often literally misunderstood one another – but this misunderstanding could often be creative.
This Middle Ground concept is important because it helps remind us that the history of North America is not a simplistic history of Europeans simply “colonizing” or “settling” the land in one fell swoop. Rather, for hundreds of years, from the 1600s and continuing even today, Europeans, and, later, Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans, married, befriended, co-parented, negotiated, traded, co-parented, worshipped, as well as fought with Native Americans in the lands that Native Americans themselves lived upon, considered sacred, and fought over.
PA: Middle Ground and Middle Colony
I like the concept of the Middle Ground for teaching Pennsylvania History for several reasons:
- It is useful for teaching about pacifist Quaker William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and his extraordinary relationship with the Lenape and Delaware Native Americans of what is now eastern Pennsylvania. Penn envisioned a relationship of peace and mutual respect, although his descendants did not honor that vision. Penn’s vision is a great example of the Middle Ground, and its failure is a great example of how the commodification of land and European assumptions of cultural superiority eroded the Middle Ground.
- Another way in which colonial Pennsylvania was a Middle Ground was through the constant interactions between Native Americans and Europeans. Here’s a great lesson plan from ExplorePAhistory.com (a site I highly recommend!) about Mary Jemison, an English colonist who, at 16 years old, was taken captive by Shawnee and lived with Seneca people. Jemison ultimately, when given the chance, said she did not want to return to her English family and lifestyle. Why not? She had found a new life in the Middle Ground.
Middle Ground and Forming a New Nation
- Sometimes we forget that it was over a decade after the U.S. declared independence from Britain (July 4, 1776) until the ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1789). This was because it took the new Americans some time to realize that the form of government initially put in place (the Articles of Confederation) was not particularly effective. Once they decided to have a meeting to discuss, why did they decide to hold this Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania? In no small part it was because Philadelphia was in between the powerful cultural center of New England and the economic powerhouse of the Southern states: the Middle Ground.
- Out of the Constitutional Convention came two compromises which shaped the rest of American history. I often tell my students that it’s really important to understand that the governing document of the U.S. is itself a compromise. I think this sort of Middle Ground – the idea of coming to a compromise when we disagree – is exactly the sort of lessons that future generations need to be able to understand to keep our Republic functioning. We often see disagreements over issues that the Constitution addresses – what exactly does the Second amendment say about gun rights? What does the First Amendment say about freedom of speech – but what about when one person’s speech might endanger another? And so on. We must be able to discuss these subjects, even when we disagree – only then can we find a Middle Ground.
- The first compromise was the Great Compromise, in which “big” states and “small” states each got part, but not all, of what they wanted. The larger (by population) states got a lower House of Representatives, in which representation is dependent on a state’s population,. Smaller states got the upper house of the U.S. Congress, the Senate, in which each state gets two Senators, regardless of that state’s population.
- A second important compromise to come out of the Constitutional Convention was the Three Fifths Compromise. This was a compromise about how populations of states were to be counted for the purpose of deciding representation in the House of Representatives. Delegates from Southern states argued that the population of enslaved people should “count” toward their state’s total population. This argument was, of course, in complete contradiction with all of the laws about slavery that were on the books in these states – these laws held that enslaved people had no standing before the law – they could not, for example, vote, be married in the eyes of the law, serve on juries, sue, testify in court, or so on. However, the South was so economically powerful that Northern delegates ultimately had to accept this Three Fifths Compromise, which counted each slave as three fifths of a person for the purpose of determining representation in the House.
- Although the Three Fifths Compromise refers to a time and subject which is particularly painful for Americans of all races to remember, I think it is important that we as teachers be able to look unflinchingly at our own past; then we can decide how to teach that past in an age appropriate way.
- One way in which educators of very young students might consider teaching the history of slavery could be to teach individual stories. In the Young Readers’ edition of Never Caught, for example, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar writes about Ona Judge, the enslaved woman who escaped from George and Martha Washington, while Washington was president, in a way that is suitable for 4th-9th graders. Philadephia was the city in which the Washingtons were living and into which Ona Judge escaped – in what ways was Philadelphia in the late 1700s a Middle Ground – between North and South, black and white, enslaved and free people?
Middle Ground in 19th and 20th Centuries
- As we move into the 19th and 20th centuries in American history, we continue to see Pennsylvania serving as a Middle Ground. Its incredible diversity, in terms of race, geography, football teams (I learned early when I moved to Pennsylvania that Steelers and Eagles fans have no love lost for one another), economic industries, and so on, make Pennsylvania like a small version of the entire United States of America.
- Quite often students respond best to learning about history that reflects their lives and the world they can see around them. Consider teaching about the actual ground! Students love learning about industries that their parents or grandparents might have been involved in – can you find a lesson plan or children’s book about the history of coal mining and processing, for example? Here are some ideas: “Life in a Coal Patch,” “Making a Living” about steel and other workers in Johnstown, and “Developing Transportation Technology” about the construction of railroads in western Pennsylvania.
- Each of these industries – coal, steel, and railroads – brought many immigrants to western Pennsylvania – your own or your students’ ancestors may be among them. Consider how they helped shape Pennsylvania into a cultural Middle Ground.